This story was originally published in Five on the Fifth.
Serena perched on the cushioned window seat with a long-forgotten cup of coffee clutched in both hands. It was a gray day—one in a long string of gray days that went back weeks. Or months. Who could remember? She set the white cup on the spotless sill.
Moments later, a ripple rolled across the surface of the coffee. It was chased by another. And another. She ground her teeth. The whole apartment building vibrated with the sounds of life: doors slammed into frames, music blasted into ears and boomed through bones, children ran helter-skelter. Outside, car horns blasted, traffic hummed, and L trains clacked. Finding a moment of silence in Chicago was rare; it occurred only in the darkest hours of the night, and the fragile spell was easily broken by a hacking cough or a screaming baby.
Serena tapped her fingers on the sill, adding to the ripples.
She’d dwelled in the chaos of city life for most of her fifty years. She often imagined what it would be like to live alone somewhere so quiet she could hear her heartbeat, her breathing. Down the hall, a door slammed. A child yelled. Serena grabbed her coffee and gulped it. Her mouth twisted at the cold, bitter assault. She sighed, set the cup down again, and closed her eyes. At least the dog had been blessedly quiet today.
Serena lived in apartment 1E, at the end of the hall near the stairs in an old, three-story brick building. In 1A, near the front entrance, lived an older man and a small brown dog that barked at everything and nothing. The dog barked the way a lonely human might talk to themselves just to hear their own voice.
Across from the dog was 1B, which was home to a family of five. Or ten. Or twenty. So many people went in and out, it was impossible to know who lived there. To top it off, a puzzling number of people would pass right by 1B and then ring every other doorbell in search of it.
In 1C, next to 1A, lived a woman and her new baby. And a slightly older baby. And another one barely older than that. Serena was pretty sure the babies had worked out a schedule so one of them was always crying.
Across from 1C, was 1D, home to three young men who each had different musical tastes. There wasn’t a functioning pair of headphones among them.
Above Serena was apartment 2E, which seemed to be occupied by an entire wrestling team plagued with insomnia. In actuality, two friendly elderly women lived there, each looking as if they couldn’t weigh more than a hundred pounds. Yet somehow they managed to set Serena’s dining room lights swaying day and night.
The doorbell buzzed, jarring Serena from her reverie. She padded to the door and peered through the peephole. She didn’t recognize the person. “This isn’t 1B,” she said.
The person mumbled something before heading away to ring someone else’s bell.
Serena took her cup to the sink. The doorbell buzzed. She jumped, dropping the cup. The handle snapped off and bounced into the disposal with a clink. The bell buzzed again. She slammed the cup on the granite counter. Her thin lips pulled tight, she stomped to the door and yelled, “This isn’t 1B! Can’t you read?”
A woman said, “Um, hello? I’m looking for 1E.”
Serena frowned and squinted into the peephole. A twenty-something woman stood with a child resting on her hip. Serena opened the door, pulled her cardigan closed, and crossed her arms. “Can I help you?”
“I’m from 1B. I really need a favor.” The woman hefted the boy higher on her hip. Her clothes were rumpled. There were dark smudges under her eyes. She rubbed her ear; it looked an angry shade of red. “Could you watch Bailey for an hour or two?”
Serena’s eyebrows raised. The child, whom she assumed was Bailey, looked to be about three years old. He was clutching a filthy gray stuffed rabbit in one hand while sucking the thumb of the other. His shirt and pants were a hodge-podge of stains of unknown origin. Serena’s nose wrinkled. “Try 1C. They’ve got kids.”
The woman stared at the ground. “I know it’s super weird, but I’m kinda desperate.”
Serena blinked several times. “I can’t watch your kid,” she said as she pushed her door closed.
“Please! One hour. Something’s not right…” She rubbed her ear again and glanced down the hall.
The woman cut Serena off by setting the kid down and sprinting to the entryway and out the front door.
“Wait!” Serena scrambled into the hall after her, but she tripped over Bailey, knocking him flat. Her arms pinwheeled as she teetered. She steadied and turned to the front door. The woman was gone. Bailey screwed up his face and howled with all his might. It reverberated through the wood-paneled hall. Serena winced, covering her ears. “Okay, okay. God, you’re loud.” She picked him up and struggled to hold him at arm’s length. He quieted, reaching out to grasp her long black and gray hair with a sticky-looking hand. She grimaced and held him further away. Her small frame tipped forward precariously. She leaned back, groaning. Bailey giggled and shoved his thumb in his mouth.
She tottered over to 1B. Setting Bailey down with a grunt, she stabbed the doorbell with her finger. When no one came, she held the button for ten seconds, letting the shrill peal saturate the apartment. Still no answer. Her shoulders slumped. She grabbed Bailey and staggered back to 1E.
“Your momma’s got one hour. Then I’m calling the police,” she said. Bailey blinked at her and tugged on his earlobe. Serena tried asking him if he was hungry or thirsty, but he only responded with a blank stare. She shook her head and stuck him on the rug in front of the TV. She dusted off the remote, located a cartoon channel, and noted the time. Settling into her favorite reading chair, she said, “One hour.”
Two hours later, the woman hadn’t returned. Serena set her jaw, marched over to 1B, and rang the bell. It trilled for a half-second and died. Frowning, she pushed it again, but it didn’t ring. She ground her teeth and banged on the door. “Come get your kid already!” A baby in 1C shrieked in response. She banged on the door twice more for good measure and stopped, her fist resting on the dark wood.
Her eyes narrowed. With all the racket she was making, the scruffy dog in 1A was showing too much restraint. She rang 1A’s bell. No answer. Serena leaned her ear against the cold door and held her breath; there were no sounds of life, not even the hum of a refrigerator. She sighed and returned to her apartment.
Bailey was still sitting in front of the TV where she’d left him, both hands pressed over his ears. She called the police. A while later, a young officer and a harried-looking woman from Child Protective Services arrived to collect Bailey. Serena answered their questions as best she could. When they left, she said, “I think he has an ear infection. He keeps messing with his ears.”
That night she slept better than she had in years. When her alarm chimed at 7 a.m., she pulled out her earplugs and lay in bed for a while, her forehead wrinkled. Finally, she sat up with wide eyes. “It’s quiet,” she breathed. Apartments 1A and 1B hadn’t been themselves: the scruffy dog hadn’t barked in days and if anyone had gone in or out of 1B, they’d done it quite discreetly. She closed her eyes. A smile crept across her face.
Music pulsed through the floor and walls, and into her ear canals. Her eardrums vibrated. Her smile slipped. “Metal and Samba with a sprinkling of Beethoven?” she said. Something heavy collided with the floor upstairs. She ground her teeth. “I guess it’s too much to ask for everyone to be quiet.” A glance at the clock told her it was 7:15. She dashed to the bathroom to get ready for work.
Weekends at the library were usually bustling, but that Saturday passed like molasses, with only two people coming in. When she arrived home, she knocked at 1B. Still no answer. She tried 1A. Their bell didn’t work, and no one answered her knocking, not even the dog. She grabbed her mail from the box and made a mental note to tell the super to check the entryway; it smelled dank and earthy. Probably a leak somewhere, she thought with a frown. Two babies cried in unison as she passed 1C. She rolled her eyes and stuck out her tongue at them.
Once her front door clicked shut behind her, she went through her evening routine and climbed into bed. As she lay there, her breath caught in her throat. There was nothing. No barking, crying, booming, stomping, or slamming. Even the distant hum of the traffic and click-clack of the L was absent. The only vibrations came from within. Her lungs moved air. Her heart pushed blood; it pulsed through arteries, veins, and capillaries. Her breathing slowed. She fell into a deep sleep, her earplugs clutched in her hand.
In the morning, she made coffee and curled up in her favorite chair. She’d planned to spend her day off making a dent in her ever-growing pile of books to read. After an hour though, she hadn’t made it beyond page one of book one; her inner voice had said each word loud and clear, but not one had been absorbed. Serena finished her coffee. Her stomach gurgled. The refrigerator hummed. She cleared her throat. The radiator hissed and clicked. The wind whistled through a drafty spot in the sill. She tapped her nail on the coffee cup. Water dripped from the kitchen faucet with a dull thud. She slammed her book closed and stood with a huff.
Everywhere she looked, something in her usually tidy apartment mocked her with imagined layers of dust. Serena spent the rest of the day furiously scrubbing everything while muttering under her breath. Exhausted, she collapsed into bed with a book, but she found herself staring at the same page again, the words still refusing to have meaning. Her fingertips rasped against the pages. She rustled the sheets. Her stomach groaned. Turning off the light with a click, she stared at the ceiling. In the back of her mind, Serena realized 1D had been quiet all day. “Probably a coincidence,” she whispered.
In the complete absence of sound, her brain tried to make sense of the nothingness. She heard snatches of music she was certain weren’t there. She sighed. The music was replaced with someone speaking garbled words. She turned onto her side and clutched a pillow to her chest. Her bed creaked under her. The garbled words were swapped out with indistinct whispering. It grew louder, surrounding her. Serena snatched her earplugs off the nightstand and stuffed them into her ears. She drifted to sleep listening to her steady breathing.
On Monday morning, Serena awoke with a start. She glanced at the clock. Eight! She rubbed her gritty eyes and stumbled out of bed, struggling to clear the wool from her brain. The same vivid dream had run amok in her head all night.
It began with someone whispering in her ear. Then the whispering grew more strident until it was whisper-shouting that echoed in her head. She’d start awake, fall back asleep, and the dream would repeat. The whole thing dredged up long-forgotten memories of childhood fever dreams.
Fifteen minutes later, she hurried out the entrance and down the stoop. When she reached the sidewalk, she skidded to a halt. Her brow furrowed. Every Sunday night, the cars parked along her street would all vanish like clockwork in time for the Monday morning street cleaning. This morning, however, all the cars were still there and no one was in sight. Her hand tightened around the strap of her bag. She listened. The omnipresent hums, clacks, screeches, or beeps of planes, trains, buses, and cars were gone. Not even a breath of wind stirred the branches of the bare trees.
Heavy silence pushed down on Serena from all sides. She could barely breathe.
Taking a step back, she pulled her phone from her bag with a shaky hand and called work. It rang many times before going to voicemail. She tried her sister in the suburbs. Voicemail. She hesitated a moment and tried the police. It rang and rang.
Movement caught her eye. There was something on top of the building across the street. She squinted. It looked like a tree—a tall trunk with branches—except it was swaying in the still air. Her mouth fell open. Serena looked up and down the street. Every building had a swaying tree on the roof. Their undulations made the hairs on the back of her neck stand on end. Her hand lowered from her ear. The phone slipped from her numb fingers and clattered on the concrete.
The noise ripped through the silence like an explosion. The trees froze and then quivered. One by one, they leaned toward her, their branches reaching for her. She turned and ran back inside the building, slamming the front door. Her bag slipped to the ground unnoticed. Her legs trembled as she leaned against the mailboxes, panting.
The door to 1B was open a crack. She dashed inside screaming, “Please, help me!” There wasn’t anyone there. She ran to the open bedroom door. Light filtered in through thin, ratty curtains. In the double bed, a stained blue comforter covered two bulges, one smaller than the other. “Hello?” Serena said. The bulges didn’t stir. A whiff of freshly-churned soil invaded her nostrils. An ice-cold lump made itself at home in her stomach.
Her body no longer felt like it was hers. Serena approached the bed, her feet moving on their own. Her arm lifted. Her fingers grasped the edge of the comforter. Her mind registered how stiff with dirt it was.
No, don’t. Her hand tugged.
The comforter pulled back. The stench of wet earth and decay hit Serena in a wave. She clamped her hand over her nose and mouth as she gagged. In the bed lay two twisted, muddy piles of what looked like sickly green tree roots. Something stuck out of a gap in the roots of the smaller pile. Serena held her breath and leaned closer. The ears of a stuffed rabbit were held tight in a small, pale fist. She turned her head away. Unblinking eyes stared at her from inside the other pile. A white maggot squirmed across a milky pupil. Serena shrieked. Spinning around, she staggered back to the hallway.
She fell against the wall, her legs threatening to give out and dump her in a heap. She gasped for air. Reasonable thought danced out of reach. “Where did everyone go?” she said. Something creaked above her. Her eyes opened wide and her head swiveled toward the staircase. “Hello?” she said. Serena listened for a minute before her feet turned of their own volition and climbed the old, groaning stairs one by one.
On the second floor, all the apartment doors stood ajar. Everything was quiet. She turned to 2E and slowly pushed open the door, wincing when it squeaked. “Ms. Corbin? Ms. Gallo?” she breathed. No answer. Serena swallowed and stepped inside. “I-I’m coming in.”
The place was tidy, but her nose wrinkled at the musty air. No one was in the living room, kitchen, or dining room. “Ms. Corbin? Ms. Gallo?” she whispered. She tiptoed through the dark, narrow hallway to the bedrooms. Every bare floorboard that creaked sent a twitch coursing through her body. Mustiness became pungent dankness that made her eyes water. She covered her nose with her coat sleeve.
The bedroom door to the left was open; the room didn’t look lived in. She turned to the other door. It was closed. She knocked. Silence. Blood thundered in her ears. She twisted the cold brass knob and slowly pushed the door open. Darkness. Thick drapes covered the windows. Serena felt along the wall until she found a switch. A lamp clicked on. She flinched. Both women lay in bed, arms wrapped around one another. Neither one moved.
No, no, no! This isn’t happening! Tears pricked her eyes. Her feet took her closer.
Their faces were pale with a blue tinge, their eyes closed tight. They seemed to be wearing crowns woven out of bare vines. Thin white filaments came from the vines and intertwined over the women’s ears like lace. Serena shuddered. Again, her body moved on its own and she stepped closer. Vines trailed from the crowns to a large hole in the wall above the headboard. Taking another step, her foot found a discarded shoe. She slipped and almost toppled into the bed. Flinging out her arms to catch herself, she knocked Ms. Corbin’s crown off her head. A long, thick filament fell out of Ms. Corbin’s ear canal onto the bed.
It writhed and lifted itself like a cobra as if it were staring at Serena. She froze. It swayed slowly, like the strange trees. She swallowed hard and took a step back. The filament twitched, lowered itself, and slithered toward her.
She screamed and fell back against the door. It slammed into the wall with a deafening bang.
A shiver coursed through the vines. They poured out of the hole in the wall in a slithering mass. Filaments slid into the dead women’s noses, eyes, and mouths. Vines twisted around the bodies until they were enveloped in squirming green-brown cocoons. The stench of decay reached a crescendo. Burning hot bile climbed Serena’s throat. She stumbled out of the apartment. Collapsing near the stairs, she vomited her scant breakfast of coffee and toast.
Rasping came from behind her. She looked down the stairs and bit her lip to hold back a scream. A muddy mass of vines was slithering up. She clutched the railing and climbed to the third floor, glancing over her shoulder every other step. At the landing, she found the door to every apartment wide open. It was silent. The smell of rot was stifling in the still air. Saliva flooded her mouth as her empty stomach heaved.
Serena whimpered and slumped against the wall. Her breaths were coming too fast. Her vision grayed and narrowed. Her legs gave out. She slid to the floor.
Whispering surrounded her as the building began to vibrate. With a crack, plaster exploded from the walls. Vines surged out. They twisted around her head and slammed it against the wall so hard she saw silver spots. Filaments slithered around her ears. Screaming, she ripped off the squirming vines and scrambled away on hands and knees.
Her eyes fell on the metal ladder and hatch leading to the roof. The hatch was ajar. Serena stood and lurched down the hall. With clammy hands, she grasped the metal rungs and climbed. She pushed open the hatch and pulled herself onto the roof. Blinking in the brilliant sunlight, her body went cold.
Twenty feet away stood one of the swaying trees. It was as tall as a normal tree, but it moved like it was listening to music. The trunk was pale and shiny with crisscrossing pulsing dark lines, making it look like tightly-stretched skin full of varicose veins. Bare vines ending in thin white filaments spilled over from the branches and hung low to the ground. Gnarled roots splotched with patches of sickly green moss and stinking brown mud fanned out across the roof. Their tips burrowed deep, infiltrating the building.
Only one thought was able to break the surface of her frozen mind—if she squinted, the tree would look like any one of the weeping willows dotting the lakefront, their lithe, harmless branches waving in the breeze.
She fell to her knees and sobbed. The tree quivered. Its trunk leaned over, lowering its vines to the ground. They slithered toward her with lightning-fast speed. Her mind screamed at her body to get up and run. Her limbs wouldn’t listen.
Vines wrapped tight around her head and body.
Filaments slid deep into her ear canals.
A strangled cry escaped her mouth.
Her bladder let go.
She heard her breath coming out in ragged puffs; her heart pounding in her chest; her blood rushing through veins and arteries.
Those sounds dimmed and other ear-splitting noises took their place: her scalp rasping over her skull; her eyes blinking; her neurons firing.
Soon, those sounds faded too, until all that remained were the deafening collisions of air molecules. Serena’s body fell silently to the ground as the sound eaters drained the last vibrations from the world.